Aneeth Arora launched her fashion label in 2009 — just two years after graduating from design school. Today, the 27-year-old New Delhi-based designer’s creations are sold in 100 outlets across 23 countries and 20 retail outlets across India. Arora’s label péro, which means to wear in Marwari, is a highly sought after niche fashion brand. Her parents, who spent nearly Rs 15 lakh to put her through National Institute of Fashion technology (Nift), New Delhi, and the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, must be very proud.
And Arora is proud of the fact that she did not need to borrow from her parents to set up her tailoring unit in the capital. “Sometimes, I earn more in a day than what my parents spent on my education,” she says with a laugh.
The success story of the fashion designer, who won the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur Award and was sent to London to learn business skills, is not an often-heard tale. Only a few brave students turn entrepreneurs and start their own labels.
Business, clearly, doesn’t figure high on fashion student’s list of options —which range from visual merchandising to material sourcing to fashion forecasting to designing for movies.
Senior faculty members at design schools and industry veterans too do not encourage students to start their own businesses — without first training under a fashion designer or notching up experience in export garment houses.
Sunil Sethi, director of India’s apex body on fashion, Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), says there is a “huge potential” for students of fashion courses. “They can do design styling or fashion communication or textile design or work in retail outlets. Jobs are assured for fashion design students.” However, he stresses, you need to have a minimum of three years’ experience before launching a label.
“There are too many players out there. The market is open for jobs, not labels,” he says. Arora is an exception, Sethi points out.
But a few institutes are now encouraging students to look at business options. The Chennai branch of Nift, which tweaks its courses every year, offers an “entrepreneur” module.
“Opportunities in a liberalised market economy like India are huge and the demand for fashionwear is high. If students are smart enough to zero in on a niche area, they can do well,” says its director, Devadoss Swaminathan. This year, the institute will incorporate an Intellectual Property Rights module to help students protect their designs, Swaminathan adds.
Fashion schools no longer just deal with cuts and embellishments but also teach about textiles, budgeting, the importance of deadlines, designing for season and a range, managing a unit, handling accounts, sample material and quality control.
“We had to study entrepreneurial and marketing subjects, besides learning patterns and embroidery, which gave me confidence and insight into the business,” says Dhanya Ramanathan, 24.
After completing a postgraduate diploma in fashion design from Pearl Academy of Fashion (PAF) in Chennai, interning with a designer and working for a brand, she decided to set up a boutique, Studio Saanvi, with partner Bandana Narula. Armed with the Rs 2 lakh she borrowed from her parents, they rented a studio, hired five tailors and two embroidery workers and started making bridalwear.
“In Chennai, customers want affordable wedding wear and anarkalis with intricate embroidery. So, we hired master embroiderers from Calcutta,” explains Ramanathan. They only work on orders not requiring huge investments. Within a span of three months, the two have broken even.
Fibin V. Raj, a fashion designer who mentors final year students at Nift in Chennai, stresses that there is a demand for affordable designwear. “Youngsters are able to provide funky partywear which is not as expensive,” points out Raj, explaining why young designers are doing so well.
The retail boom provides a platform (online as well) to market their designs. Points out Fareeda Khan, the director of the Chennai branch of International Institute of Fashion Design (INIFD), “Many established boutiques such as Kimaya, Collage or Mélange put up a rack especially for young students.” The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) also does its bit (see box).
Fashion weeks, Indian and foreign, have also opened up avenues for students. In fact, Arora got her first break at the Gen X show at the Lakme Fashion Week.
“It is a great platform. I got an order and advance cheques after that show,” reveals Arora who also bagged an Italian agent to market her designs abroad. The only investment she has made in her business so far are 12 pieces she created to display in well-known boutiques in Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Chandrani Singh Fllora from Calcutta, who started her label after studying fashion technology from Wigan & Leigh College in the city, has also netted buyers from Kuwait and won an invite to the prestigious Vancouver Fashion Week after she showcased her designs at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week.
“If FDCI did not give me a platform like the fashion week, could I have got an invite from Vancouver,” asks Fllora, who had to struggle for three years before breaking even. She has gradually made a name with her subdued embroidery work in western cut styles.
Raj believes that the demand in foreign markets for Indian fabric and detailing but in contemporary styles is fuelling the growth of these young entrepreneurs. “Foreign brands want to combine traditional Indian textiles with knits and create a silhouette. This niche is catered to by trained fashion design students,” he says.
“Young designers were not confident enough to branch off on their own earlier,” observers Bivekananda Banerjee, the new director of NIFT, Calcutta. Popular designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Vivek Goenka are NIFT Calcutta alumni.
“Fashion design is so specialised now that you can start a business focusing on just one aspect of what they call surface ornamentation. It could be a unit doing just batik or hand embroidery or kantha or block printing,” says Banerjee.
Fashion design students are also in demand in industries not traditionally linked with fashion. “Car manufacturing companies are snapping up fashion design students to design car interiors,” says Anitha Manohar, professor of fashion design and research at NIFT in Chennai. Designing home furnishings such as bed linens, curtains and tablemats is another developing area.
However, it is not easy to be an entrepreneur. “Students need strong willpower, the ability to work 24 hours and keep themselves updated on new trends,” says Mukherjee.
They also have to churn out new designs every six months on stiff deadlines. “The challenges are many. You have to work with weavers who don’t understand deadlines and adjust with the same cluster of regular craftsmen,” says Arora.
The initial investment is in the range of Rs 15-20 lakh to start a unit. Would-be entrepreneurs have to hire master tailors, embroiderers, printers and also need to know how to sell to clients, to develop a brand and about supply chain logistics. “It takes a year at least to just understand fabric,” says Fllora.
“It helps to work under a designer for a while just to learn how to handle a business and labour,” Arora adds. “Be observant, stick to deadlines, start small, develop your own distinct style and stay true to it to survive in a competitive market,” she advises aspiring designers.
If you join a retail outlet or an export company as a junior fashion designer, you can take home Rs 20,000-Rs 40,000 per month but as an entrepreneur you can take home the same amount that a doctor or engineer makes in a month — several lakhs of rupees, with the zeros depending on your work and name.